Articles on this Page
- 07/28/12--16:05: _New Selected Journa...
- 07/29/12--05:26: _Ann Atkinson obituary
- 07/30/12--04:14: _TS Eliot's The Wast...
- 07/30/12--04:26: _Poem of the week: H...
- 07/31/12--03:11: _Go to Leeds' Kirkga...
- 07/31/12--09:21: _Edinburgh's mysteri...
- 07/31/12--10:33: _Paperback Q&A: Will...
- 08/01/12--08:39: _Rock climbers scale...
- 08/02/12--04:57: _The Attys: new digi...
- 08/03/12--03:07: _Olympics 2012 in ar...
- 08/03/12--03:07: _Olympics 2012 in ar...
- 08/03/12--14:55: _Stephen Spender: Ne...
- 08/03/12--14:55: _81 Austerities by S...
- 08/03/12--14:55: _Sue Arnold's audiob...
- 08/03/12--14:55: _The Saturday poem: ...
- 08/06/12--04:26: _Poem of the week: V...
- 08/08/12--03:57: _Jackie Kay creates ...
- 08/08/12--03:58: _Olympics 2012 in ar...
- 08/09/12--01:51: _Path to enlightenme...
- 08/10/12--01:00: _Poster poems: August
- 07/28/12--16:05: New Selected Journals, 1939-1995 by Stephen Spender – review
- 07/29/12--05:26: Ann Atkinson obituary
- 07/30/12--04:14: TS Eliot's The Waste Land 2012 – a multimedia walk
- 07/31/12--03:11: Go to Leeds' Kirkgate Market and you might end up in a novel
- 07/31/12--09:21: Edinburgh's mysterious book sculptures go on tour
- 07/31/12--10:33: Paperback Q&A: William Sieghart on Winning Words
- 08/02/12--04:57: The Attys: new digital poetry prize to be judged by Margaret Atwood
- 08/03/12--03:07: Olympics 2012 in art: Michael Rosen gets gold medal anxiety – video
- 08/03/12--14:55: 81 Austerities by Sam Riviere – review
- 08/03/12--14:55: Sue Arnold's audiobook choice - review
- 08/03/12--14:55: The Saturday poem: Within Ten Seconds
- 08/08/12--03:57: Jackie Kay creates her own armchair triathlon – video
- 08/08/12--03:58: Olympics 2012 in art: Jackie Kay writes her own armchair triathlon
- 08/09/12--01:51: Path to enlightenment: how walking inspires writers
- 08/10/12--01:00: Poster poems: August
Stephen Spender's journals show that his feelings about sex, fidelity and fellow poets were far from simple
In a famous photograph from 1931 (reproduced in this book), Auden, Spender and Isherwood face the camera, though Spender's eyes are looking off at an angle. Auden looks like an overgrown schoolboy, Spender like a cricket captain, Isherwood like a pocket film star or glamorous jockey. Spender is the central figure, but only as a requirement of photographic composition, thanks to his height. His arms are behind his friends, though it's not clear if he actually has his hands round their shoulders, as he does when the grouping was repeated in front of another camera on Fire Island in 1947. Spender's eyes are closed on the later occasion (he's in mid-smile and the day is sunny), while Auden and Isherwood grin warmly at each other.
All three writers tried to be true to literature without ignoring politics, and also to balance the claims of desire, commitment and public image. In 1935 Isherwood rejected the idea of marrying Erika Mann, to give her citizenship and safety, because he hated the idea of seeming to want a respectable facade. Auden stepped in without hesitation, as if marriage held no sacredness for him, yet he committed himself completely to his partner Chester Kallman in what seemed to his friends an arbitrary martyrdom (the relationship was open, but only at Chester's end). As a young man Spender was relatively frank about his interest in his own sex, but encouraged the idea that this was some sort of phase after he married Natasha Litvin in 1941, by whom he had children, Matthew and Lizzie.
It's a bit of a jolt to read in this new selection from Spender's journals (5 August 1980) that Tony Hyndman, with whom he had a difficult affair, "was the visible manifestation of something which was the deepest thing in my nature – my loyalty to the 'queer' world, the gay". And later in the same entry: "In the long run, I did, of course, ditch Tony – but I never lost my loyalty to a commitment which he represented. I know what Christopher Isherwood means when he writes unforgivingly of his 'queer' friends who get married." This passage was understandably omitted from the 1985 selection of journals, and appears here (along with a number of unambiguous entries) almost literally over Natasha Spender's dead body. Her name is given in the new book as having edited it alongside Lara Feigel and John Sutherland, but Feigel's introduction records that she was "reluctant" to include such entries. If you're reluctant you can be won over in time, but given that the decision to include the material wasn't made while she was alive (she died in 2010) the word "opposed" might be more exact.
No one reading the journals could reasonably think that the marriage was a fiction, but if there was an element of wishful thinking on both sides, Natasha paid most of the price for it. It would be odd for her to want the world to read about Spender's ecstatic involvement in the 1970s with a man 40-plus years younger than himself, and the humiliation it caused her at the time, when her husband made declarations over the phone without realising that an acoustical peculiarity of the building made them perfectly audible to her, two rooms away.
You could make the case that Spender wouldn't have kept those journal entries if he hadn't wanted them published, and that Natasha could have destroyed them herself if that had been her deepest need. It may be that the children have given their blessing – but it's still a decision that needed to be justified by the editors, not smoothed over by describing the passages as essential and fascinating.
It has to be said that Spender's journals aren't as entertaining as Isherwood's diaries. The word "journal" itself has a whiff of pretension, even before it gets a capital letter, as it often does here: "My life is getting absurdly social, and now it is worse because I am stimulated by curiosity about experiences to put in my Journal" (July 1955). Sometimes the style of referring to intimates is oddly stilted, seeming more appropriate to a public speech than any sort of private utterance: "Matthew (aged 9), who was sleeping in the twin bed during my wife's absence…" Referring to "Sundrin Dutta, the great Bengali writer" may be well-meant, but repeating the phrase exactly in a later entry makes it look as if you haven't actually read a word.
Isherwood had the advantage of prose being his primary product, so that a diary could double as a workshop. When Spender reports a conversation about the candidness of his journals he refers to "one or two things in my life I would not write about because I did not understand them myself". This category includes "experiences of falling in love which seemed almost hallucinatory". Isherwood would have been baffled by this impulse to retreat rather than examine, and to ban the richest samples from the laboratory.
Still, keeping a diary is a sort of yoga, a stretching exercise almost guaranteed to promote suppleness of mind, and Spender's sensibility opens up unpredictably. He becomes better company as the book goes on. No one ever accused the later Auden of suppleness, though as Spender puts it with rather desperate gallantry, "if Wystan […] seems a bit fixed, it is in a fixed direction, not that he is stuck."
Right to the end, Auden remains a mystery to him, almost on a par with sex and death. As late as 1979 Spender is troubled by both the character and the working methods: "I did not think of him as having human feelings and I felt about his early poetry a lack of a personal 'I' at the centre of it." This could be rewritten in Auden's favour by saying that he didn't make a fetish of subjectivity in those poems, and this is part of what made them durable – the sense of their being full of electrical activity but not charged in the conventional ways.
Spender returns to the argument a few months later, suggesting that in Auden's case "the poet at once knows his lovers and friends more completely than they know him, because of his very intelligent powers of analysis, and less well because he never lapses into that mutuality which is shared knowledge of each other by the other". The lapse into mutuality as something Auden instinctively opposed is a strong and rewarding idea.
As for Spender's feelings towards someone who simultaneously pushed him forward and hampered him, they could only be a tissue of gratitude and suppressed resentment. In March 1995, only months before his death, he tells a story as if it was discreditable to Cyril Connolly when actually it is Auden who is shown in a bad light (it's to do with the appropriation of a valuable book). He can only express a grievance against Auden with a cover story.
In an earlier pair of entries, he garbles something Auden said on a visit, so that "he surprised me by saying he thinks endlessly about what form would best suit his subjects" (this recorded at the time) soon becomes "Auden said 'What obsesses me is form. So I put poems into them arbitrarily and make them as abstruse as possible'". Passing on both a true copy and a corrupted file, he can be both the faithful disciple and the betrayer.
In 1979 Stephen Spender spent a sleepless night asking himself "did I really like Wystan?" Part of his answer is to discuss Auden's jealousy of his endowment (not the poetic one). "To be totally honest now," he writes, "I should ask whether Auden was not a bit envious of me because I had a large penis. He was certainly affected by this and mentioned it mockingly on many occasions." There's a certain mutuality of abasement here, with one poet's littleness being put on record, while the other is diminished by having needed to mention it.
Our mother, Ann Atkinson, who has died from a brain tumour aged 64, was a talented and passionate poet. She was poet laureate of the Peak District in 2008 and of Derbyshire from 2009 to 2011, recognition for a life spent writing, as well as encouraging others to write.
She was twice winner of the York poetry prize, had work included in many anthologies, and published two collections, Drawing Water (2009) and From Matlock to Mamelodi: 5,000 Miles of Poetry (2011). The latter was the result of a visit to the Mamelodi township in South Africawhich she described as "life-changing". She travelled with the Bright in the Corner musical dance theatre company as part of a cultural exchange to weave her words through dance, music and film.
Mum was a regular at literature festivals and the sound of her velvet, rhythmic voice reading her poetry will stay with all who heard her. A lover of music and a pianist herself, she worked as poet-in-residence with the Brodsky Quartet, after she was so moved by seeing them perform that she simply got out of her chair and asked them if they would have her.
She was born Ann Wharton in Sedgefield, County Durham and grew up in Billingham. As a child, she loved English, dance and drama, and the title poem of Drawing Water is about how much she enjoyed art at school. She trained to be a teacher at Alsager College of Education (now Manchester Metropolitan University). She moved, in 1968, with our father, Laurence Atkinson, to Sheffield, where she taught at Beaver Hill comprehensive school until 1974.
Ann lectured at Derby University from 1987 until 1994 and helped develop their creative writing programme. In 1994 she graduated from Manchester University with an MA in the writing and transmission of contemporary poetry. Then, she lectured in creative writing at Leeds, Sheffield and Derby universities between 1996 and 2008.
She ran various adult education classes in Sheffield and Wirksworth, as well as editing the literary magazine Staple. She loved working with students of all ages, in schools, children's homes and care homes; and through her energy and enthusiasm, taught people that they had something special to say – that they had poetry inside them.
She seemed to find inspiration everywhere, from a fleeting encounter with a motorist when they both stopped to let a stoat cross a Derbyshire road, to childhood memories, her family, love and loss, holidays, music and her feelings about getting older. During her laureateships she wrote about community, sport, and local trades and traditions. One of her poems is carved in gritstone on the Longshaw estate in Derbyshire; another is etched in glass at a community building in South Normanton.
Ann was the most wonderful mother, granny, friend, teacher, party-thrower, cook, storyteller, warm-welcomer, inspirer and encourager.
Our parents were divorced. She is survived by us, and by two grandsons, Lucas and Flynn.
Earlier this summer, 25 walkers set off to explore the changing face of London through a group reading of TS Eliot's groundbreaking poem, The Waste Land. Henry Eliot listens for the echoes of the HMS Albion tragedy, the Fisher King and the thunder in the barren spaces of east London
London is a city of fragments and walking through it is always a mosaic experience, an experience echoed by the thickly layered literary references, multiple voices and different languages of TS Eliot's century-defining poem, The Waste Land. Inspired by the vegetation ceremonies described in Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough, Eliot paints a sweeping portrait of the European zeitgeist, and that of London in particular after the first world war. This summer, with London once more on the cusp of transition – fuelled this time by peak oil, climate change and financial crisis – 25 intrepid walkers formed an eclectic fellowship outside West Ham Station, ready to trace change and the returning echoes of past transformation through the landscape of east London.
We began within a circle of rusting upright hammers in the West Ham Recreation Ground. In the late 19th century the employees of the Thames Ironworks Shipbuilding Company played football on this spot, before moving to Upton Park, where the fans of West Ham United still chant "Come on you Irons!" The eleven steel posts are laid out on the construction lines of a cruiser built by the firm in 1898, the HMS Albion, whose launch brought death to 38 souls. The epigram to The Waste Land, which concerns the Cumaean Sibyl, rings strangely among these standing irons. Granted eternal life, she was so frail she had to live in a jar to avoid deliquescing – her only wish was to die.
The first of the poem's five sections, "The Burial of the Dead", took us to The East London Cemetery, where the Book of Common Prayer service of the same name has been read aloud for one and a half centuries. This enormous leafy space is filled with a growing number of mostly stone memorials, but their rose garden is a quiet and perfumed patch of riotous colour where serried roses grow from cremation ashes. Standing amongst the flowers we felt their dull roots stirring all around us, feeding a little life out of the dead land.
A short walk later, past crowds of stones – so many, I had not thought death had undone so many – we caught the first echo of the Albion: an enormous anchor commemorating the tragic accident of 1898. When Mrs Isabel White, 30, was pulled from the water, her two daughters, Lottie and Queenie, were still clinging to her frock; all three were drowned. Huge crowds lined the cemetery avenues to witness the mass burial, and we walked back to the main gate through that ghostly gauntlet, reflecting on the heart of light, the silence.
Next we headed upstream, up the Northern Outfall Sewer to the Abbey Mills Pumping Station. We followed the ridge that hides the massive pipe, flushing the collected effluence of east London down to the treatment works at Beckton before it's emptied into the Thames. In places the Greenway Path is illustrated with riotous graffiti, a heap of broken images; in others it's bordered by a verdant swathe of fecund waste land: roots that clutch, branches growing out of stony rubbish.
Land in London is generally too valuable to go to waste, and it's only on the edges and in the cracks, between a sewage pipe and a cemetery for instance, that urban developers give up and abandon control. Over all these regions of decay hangs the Waste Land of Arthurian legend and the Fisher King, who haunted our walk as he does the poem.
In legend, the Fisher King is wounded and rendered infertile. As a result his kingdom has failed and become barren, mirroring his physical state; all he can do is sit by the river and fish. The Quest for the Holy Grail is a quest to heal the King and restore the kingdom to health. We strode along the outfall sewer, latter-day Knights of the Round Table, hoping that, like Sir Perceval, we too could restore the environmental and economic health of the nation through our Walk of Transition.
Abbey Mills Pumping Station, like its twin at Crossness south of the river, is a glorious Temple of Turd. Both stations are crucial to Joseph Bazalgette's 1860s sewerage system, which relies mostly on gravity to shift London's waste. Here where the Thames basin flattens, the cess has to be pumped forty feet up to give it the gradient to reach Beckton. Bazalgette's Byzantine edifice has now been superseded by a more functional grey structure nearby, but the original remains intact in all its ornate glory. Beside a disused spiral pump, looking like a giant tattooed ammonite on the shores of the Cretaceous soup, we heard Madame Sosostris turning tarot cards. It was the city at its most unreal.
We followed the Greenway to the fringes of the Olympic Park, where rolls of razor wire barred the path. Over the hoardings we glimpsed the coronet of the main stadium and the doodle of the ArcelorMittal Orbit. Olympic regeneration has been much touted, bemoaned by the likes of Iain Sinclair as destroying "magical wildernesses". Its real test will come after the adrenalin rush of the Games subsides. As Paul Finch, Chair of the Olympic Design Review Panel, said in 2009: "The big concern is that it will be a bit like the Millennium Dome, surrounded by huge areas of wasteland with literally nothing there."
We turned downstream and followed the River Lea away from the stadium and towards the empty territory of the Dome, squeezing between a dull canal and a stretch of high-tensile fencing, along a feral corridor of wild poppies and long grass. We were allowed a shortcut across the yard of Regional Waste Recycling, specialists in wet slurry, offering a rare sight of raw refuse in its most uncompromising state.
The River Lea is named after Lugus or King Lud, the Celtic God of Light, whose temple forms the foundations of St Paul's Cathedral (hence Ludgate). We heard the start of "A Game of Chess" on the river path below the Bow Roundabout. In this dark subaqueous space the water is lit by horizontal shafts of light that stir the pattern on the coffered concrete ceiling. King Lud is thought to be an early iteration of the Fisher King, making the Lea an auspicious watercourse to follow. The rats' alley led us past the tidal mills and oasthouses of the Three Mills film studios before leaving the river for the Bromley Gas Works.
In a secluded clearing below the peeling gasholders stands a war memorial, illuminated by flickering gas, for the employees of the Gas Light and Coke Company. These men never lived to be demobbed and see their Lils again, or eat hot gammon, but alongside their collected memory we heard the poem's post-war pub conversation, an encounter reported to Eliot by his maid, Ellen Kellend.
The area south of Star Lane DLR Station is full of stacks: scrap metal mounds, teetering skips, high-rise piles of wooden pallets. We passed the Legendary Bridgehouse II, seemingly marooned in this inhospitable hinterland.
We had paused to discuss their Jägermeister sponsorship and the logo of the legend of Saint Hubert when we spotted an incongruous blue Rolls Royce, parked and glinting amidst the scrap, and looking closer, found its number plate read LUD: the God of Light, the river we were following, the Fisher King. Our path was becoming charged with resonance …
Sliding under the A13 we passed the Green Flag Award-winning Bow Creek Nature Reserve, whose extraordinary ecological diversity is due to years of foreign cargoes docking nearby, and on the banks of the river again, we started "The Fire Sermon", musing on the wreck of the Fisher King. Finally, curving east we reached the mouth of the creek and the sudden expanse of sky at Trinity Buoy Wharf. The cloudscape and the brown choppy sweep of the Thames were a welcome contrast to our morning's industrial cramp. Opposite, the Millennium Dome mushroomed massively and away to the left some of the first passengers were riding the North Greenwich Air Line. Another unreal place, huge and gaping. This spot was the site of the HMS Albion launch and disaster, and before lunch we completed that story, which had taken place on almost exactly the same day of the year, more than a century earlier.
Up to 200 people had crammed on to a temporary wooden slipway to get a better view of the launch. After three attempts to smash champagne against the ship's hull, the Duchess of York gave up, cut the cord and workmen released the vessel. A powerful wave created by the ship's momentum engulfed the slipway, smashing it to pieces and plunging onlookers into the river. Many were killed and injured but their cries of panic were initially drowned by the crowd's applause. It was a full ten minutes before the rescue party was launched.
The sombre tone was lifted by the thriving artists' commune at Trinity Buoy Wharf, which serves as an inspiring example of positive transition. In London's only lighthouse, Jem Finer's Longplayer is in performance: computerised Chinese singing bowls chime according to algorithms that will not repeat for a thousand years. You sit in the lantern with wraparound views of south east London and the music, both high-tech and ancient, transports you. There is also surreal shrine to Michael Faraday in his experiment hut – various Da Vinci contraptions in rusted steel – and a deliciously authentic and cheap American diner, Fatboy's, where we ate lunch. Avocado, bacon and cheese burgers gestured to Eliot's American heritage.
After lunch, the wheel turned. In the morning we'd walked through waste and industrial scrub. In the afternoon we'd be charting regrowth, striking through London's Docklands, now converted into warehouse accommodation, open public spaces and the foremost financial district in the world. Geometrically, the morning had been a curved, meandering route between two circular structures; the afternoon would be a beeline between the tallest phallic symbols in the country: 1 Canada Square and the Shard. At this cusp of feminine and masculine, we heard the man-woman Tiresias, "the most important personage in the poem" according to Eliot, describing loveless coitus between a resigned typist and a carbuncular clerk.
Tiresias, though blind, is all-seeing, forced to witness these sad events. During one of my earlier research walks, I had met an old lady in Narrow Street and helped carry her shopping to her spectacularly eccentric penthouse, full of fading magazines, books and jungle plants, with floor to ceiling views from Canary Wharf to the Gherkin. It transpired that she was Rae Hoffenberg, a South African actress turned architect and urban visionary, who had single-handedly catalysed the transformation of the whole London Docklands area in the 1970s by campaigning for change to existing planning permission.
Despite her enduring grace and energy, I can't help imagining Rae as a modern Tiresias, sitting above the Thames at the heart of her own handiwork, watching the violet hour descend over London, the sun's last rays touching the towers of glass and steel, foresuffering all that will be enacted …
On towards Canary Wharf, passing Virginia Quay – from which the first settlers left England to found Jamestown, Virginia – and climbing up metal stairs to the famous financial compound. Down to our right was the corrugated hulk of New Billingsgate Market, its fish vanes shifting in the breeze.
Walking into Canary Wharf, the corporate façades narrow like the walls of a gorge and the shadows of high finance give the air a cavernous coolness. But it's a science fiction landscape as well, with waterways, treelines and train tracks at multiple levels. Hunched pods are portals to the Underground; silent doors are gateways to the clouds. We stopped by a sculpture of a fragmented centaur and heard the song of the Thames Daughters, connecting nothing with nothing through broken fingernails.
Once we were past the Isle of Dogs, we gathered on a sunken landing stage with the water sloshing around us, and listened to a recording of Eliot himself reading "Death by Water", the short fourth section of the poem. The water whorled and flopped against the stones and we considered Phlebas the Phoenician, drowned and ageing in reverse, the current picking his bones in whispers. Eliot's voice is clipped and sonorous and made a strange accompaniment to the river noise. Nearby the gathered testimony of a London night was clumped by the water: empty bottles, sandwich papers, a football, cardboard boxes and cigarette ends…
We stopped for tea at the Wapping Project, a converted Hydraulic Power Station reimagined as a restaurant, bar and arts venue. A long candlelit table was ready for us amidst the Victorian equipment. A disco ball hung from the brown ivy roof. The art installation was SeaWomen by Mikhail Karikis, a sound and film installation depicting a community of Japanese women on the North Pacific island of Jeju, who dive for seafood and pearls with no oxygen supply, communicating underwater through otherworldly squeaks and screams.
Moving on we saw a real Fisher King on Shadwell Basin and descended through Wapping Woods towards Tobacco Dock. It was here that our gathering storm of resonance broke with the fifth and final section of the poem: "What the Thunder Said".
As we passed a deserted multi-storey car park we heard violent shouting: a man and a woman. We called to see if they were all right and a young guy appeared from behind a pillar, gesturing angrily and asking who the fuck we were, a silent hijabi behind him. We moved on and began our reading, but were again interrupted by shouting: a couple behind us had also spoken to the man and he'd attacked them. The wife was crying for help. We ran back. The husband was a former Royal Marine and pinned the man to the ground. Agony in a stony place. Two female police officers arrived within minutes. Prison and palace and reverberation. I was reminded of Eliot's working title for the poem: He Do the Police in Different Voices.
The incident left the group shaken – it had been sudden and unexpected – and we walked in near silence along the Western Docks canal, a spruce but deserted residential estate. Had the dream of dockland regeneration turned to nightmare? Was this the Unreal City, a social wasteland devoid of community, a vacuum sucking in violence? We imagined red sullen faces sneering from the doors of mudcracked houses.
Tower Bridge burst upon us and then we were in the bustle of St Katherine Docks. It wasn't until we reached the Tower of London that we regained full equanimity. Here we discussed Bran, the Welsh Raven God, another Fisher King archetype. In Welsh legend, Bran was a giant King of Britain whose head was buried at Bryn Gwyn, the White Mound on which the Tower of London now stands. While his head was buried the kingdom could not fail. This is why there are still ravens at the Tower, and why there is an abiding belief that if ever they leave, the kingdom will fall to ruin. One of the ravens at the Tower is still called Bran.
Most of the London locations mentioned in The Waste Land are in the vicinity of London Bridge. We walked down Lower Thames Street, past the fishy architecture of Old Billingsgate, and stopped at Saint Magnus Martyr with its "inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold". We entered the Chapel Perilous, a strange Arthurian ruin, empty among the mountains, in which strange apparitions test the knights' mettle.
With a flash of lightning we walked past the Monument, a fiery reminder of another period of transition and rebuilding, and we stopped on Lombard Street by the old Lloyds Bank where Eliot worked on foreign accounts. We gathered in Change Alley, the Lloyds beehive symbol way above us. We shouted "DA!" The thunder bouncing off the bank. "DA!" The thunder's single syllable that was interpreted differently by the gods, men and demons in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
The poem was surging to a close now. We curved around Saint Mary Woolnoth, with the dead sound on the final stroke of nine, and flowed down King William Street to London Bridge, falling down falling down falling down. We stopped in the middle, high above the Thames and voiced the final fragments shored against Eliot's ruins.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song …
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih.
Henry Eliot is co-editor of Curiocity and will be launching his own literary walks and events company this autumn
This walk was part of the Festival of Transition, a month-long series of events coordinated by the New Economics Foundation focusing on the triple challenge of dwindling fossil fuels, climate change and a broken financial system
Dryden shows his enjoyment of translating Horace, 'paraphrasing' his verse with brilliant wordplay
"For this last half-year I have been troubled with the disease (as I may call it) of translation … " Thus John Dryden begins the preface to his volume, Sylvae, or the Second Part of Poetical Miscellanies (1685). It marks his emergence, relatively late in life, as a translator, containing work by various Greek and Latin authors: Theocritus, Lucretius, Horace, Ovid among them. Despite that "disease", encompassing a nagging "un-ease" about the fidelity of his method, Dryden enjoyed translating Horace – and it shows. See, for example, the magnificent Ode 29 from Book Three presented by Dryden as his own imitation of "Pindarique Verse". Its famous eighth stanza ("Happy the man, and happy he alone, / He who can call today his own … ") is treasured by readers still – as poetry and as advice on living. For this week's poem, however, I've picked a smaller jewel: the wonderfully elegant version of Ode Nine, Book One.
Dryden described his method as paraphrase. The original author's words were not as "strictly followed as his sense". The sense could be amplified, and even altered. This was a practical and, in some ways, obvious technique. Horace's word-order, for example, has to be altered to make sense in a non-inflected language. In taking further liberties, the justification is that the translator is himself making a poem. Dryden tried to create a work the author could have produced "if he were living and an Englishman". He sets the standard for poetry translation as fidelity to the receiving language, and sets a further standard: he is honest with the reader about his strategies.
Horace didn't think of these verses as Odes. The Renaissance gave them that title. To the author, they were songs, or "carmina". Ode one/nine is written in Alcaics, a four-lined, largely dactylic strophe named after the Greek poet Alcaeus: it's the commonest verse-form in the Odes, a flexible form-for-all-seasons. Using iambic tetrameter chiefly, with the rhyme-scheme A B A B C C (C), Dryden expands the quatrain, in the first four stanzas to six lines and in the last two to seven. The bold move works. The statelier English verse occupies its space comfortably. There's no padding, no rigidity.
Dryden's poem sometimes generalises, of course. He loses the address to Thaliarchus, master of the feast. He doesn't mention Mount Soracte or name the trees. In the last stanza, there's no reference to the girl's ring. Yet he avoids dull exegesis or moralising. Like Horace, he balances his showing and telling.
Dryden enjoys some subtly brilliant word-play. In the first stanza, the mountains of line one are elevated in the next by "mounts of snow", a linguistic effect and a snapshot revealing the snow itself as mountainous. There's a wonderful gravitational pull in the rest of the stanza, from the "labouring woods" (suggesting more tonnage of snow on the trees) to the stream, imagined as a prisoner, fettered, benumbed, "cramp'd to solid ground". The ensuing indoors scene introduces a contrasting glow and vivacity, with the heaped logs replacing the snow-heaps outside. The mood is merry and defiant, a mixture of Epicurean and stoic. It's tempting to imagine the Restoration (1660) as Dryden's political subtext here.
God now comes on stage in a somewhat Jovian manner, playful, not wholly reliable. He will provide, "if 'tis worth His care", but there's no knowing what so stormy, windy and capricious a deity might do next (think 17th-century politics again, perhaps?). The scene is set perfectly for that sound, pragmatic advice to seize the moment – "Nor love, nor love's delights, disdain … " Dryden works Horace into some sharp-suited epigrams, as in the final couplet of this stanza and the last line of the next (fifth): "The best is but in season best."
It's such a cohesive, tight little ship of a poem, yet the tone is relaxed. There is an ease of movement in the argument, so it never seems heavy-handed. All the stanzas work separately, and all work together in forming an overall architecture. There's a satisfying balance of concrete and abstract. Dryden leaves out some of Horace's specific details, but compensates with a focus on language.
In the wonderful last stanza, notice how appropriately he picks up the tercet's rhyme-sounds ("feign/again/ordain") from the fourth stanza's couplet about the delights of love ("disdain/gain"). That extra room now allows him to present the courtship drama as a complete narrative-in-miniature. The faint sexual frisson is judged to perfection, and not a word is misplaced. Horace's brevity is magical, here, but Dryden's amplification works in another way. He closes with a line of hexameter, straightforward and serious: "These, these are joys the gods for youth ordain." Do we hear the regretful tone of middle-age? Perhaps, and this may be another reason why Dryden's English lives. He's true to his own feelings.
Dryden was a great literary all-rounder. He is "the father of modern criticism" and a glorious prose-stylist. He's no longer remembered as a playwright, perhaps unfairly. I recently read one of his comedies (An Evening's Love), dipping my toe for the first time, and found it a highly entertaining piece of Spanish sitcom. But Dryden himself feared he had wasted his energies among "the steaming ordures of the stage".
In 1685, of course, he was still to produce his great allegorical poems and the brilliant satires such as Mac Flecknoe (1682), and still to tackle his translation masterpiece, Virgil's Aeneid. The Sylvae represent no less an achievement, showing Dryden in a perhaps unusual light – that of graceful poetic lyricist.
Horace's original, with an interesting modern American translation and helpful commentary by William Harris, is here.
Horace: The Odes, Book One, IX, translated by John Dryden
Behold yon mountain's hoary height
Made higher with new mounts of snow:
Again behold the winter's weight
Oppress the labouring woods below'
And streams with icy fetters bound
Benumbed and cramped to solid ground.
With well-heaped logs dissolve the cold
And feed the genial hearth with fires;
Produce the wine that makes us bold,
And spritely wit and love inspires;
For what hereafter shall betide
God (if 'tis worth His care) provide.
Let Him alone with what He made,
To toss and turn the world below;
At His command the storms invade,
The winds by His commission blow;
Till with a nod He bids them cease
And then the calm returns and all is peace.
Tomorrow and its works defy;
Lay hold upon the present hour,
And snatch the pleasures passing by
To put them out of Fortune's power;
Nor love nor love's delights disdain –
Whate'er thou getts't today, is gain.
Secure those golden early joys
That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,
Ere with'ring time the taste destroys
With sickness and unwieldy years.
For active sports, for pleasing rest.
This is the time to be posesst;
The best is but in season best.
Th'appointed hour of promised bliss,
The pleasing whisper in the dark,
The half-unwilling willing kiss,
The laugh that guides thee to the mark,
When the kind nymph would coyness feign
And hides but to be found again –
These, these are joys the gods for youth ordain.
Young writers-in-residence have set up a Saturday stall to spin yarns, poems and drama from anything you care to share with them. Organiser Adam Lowe tells more
Leeds' Kirkgate Market is alive with movement and trade. Real life stories are passed across the counter with a handful of change and a bag of potatoes. From the buying and selling of goods to the exchange of greetings.
From people sharing news, information and brief moments of kindness, to the swish of hips and the drum of feet as shoppers create a choreography of human traffic. Now the city's young writers are here too - and in the wider market for personal insights, no matter how small.
Until 11 August, Kirkgate Market's young writers in residence have set up shop in the grand old building to listen to your stories of the city we all love. Discover our stall between 11am and 5pm every Saturday and have a chat and a biscuit with our young writers. We will be handing out free tote bags and conducting interviews throughout our time in the stall. Sign our guestbook, or leave your messages and memories about the market on our Wall of Stories. We can even write you on-the-spot poems as gifts and birthday presents.
Finally, you can join us from 2pm on Saturday 11 August for our grand finale, which will feature live performances from our young writers, a griots' chorus , and an imaginative tour of Kirkgate that treads different eras and cultures.
This will be your chance to meet popular characters throughout history, such as Prince Alemayehu and a certain famous Mr Marks, long before he met his friend Mr Spencer. You will be invited to drink tea with the Spice Woman, walk back in time in someone else's shoes, help a historian with his beauty regime, and light incense for all those who have come to the market and all those who have left.
2012 is the year of the Olympics and the Royal Jubilee. But Leeds won't be left out. Join us for our Kirkgate Jubilympics and we can all go down in history. 2012 is our year too.
The finale will last approximately 45 minutes, beginning at 2pm, with time afterwards to explore the story-based installations which pop up around the market. Please join us at the Vicar Lane entrance in the 1904 Hall five minutes before each show starts.
Adam Lowe is a writer, publisher and live artist from Leeds. His website is here.
The discovery of intricate book sculptures left anonymously in Edinburgh literary spots last year entranced book-lovers. For the first time, writes Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library, all ten are going on public display
I've run the Scottish Poetry Library for 12 years, and nothing we have done has brought us as much attention as we've had as the result of a gift out of the blue, in March last year, of a little tree made out of a book and leaves torn from books, accompanied by a gilded eggshell with a poem lining.
The online community of booklovers was entranced by the gradual revelation of a series of book sculptures by an anonymous artist, left in various Edinburgh institutions in celebration of "libraries, books, words and ideas". The first and last of the ten in the series were given to the Scottish Poetry Library, and they made inspired references to poems, one by Edwin Morgan and one by Norman MacCaig.
Every day since they started appearing we've been fielding the same questions: "Do you know who the sculptor is?" and "When can we see them all together?" Well, they were brought together for one night in December 2011, for an invitation-only event at the Scottish parliament, and their intricate beauty and inventiveness astounded the guests.
Why not share this bounty with a wider audience, we thought that night, not really knowing how complicated a proposal that might be. The arts agency Creative Scotland and an appropriately anonymous donor have enabled the library to do so, in partnership with Edinburgh City of Literature Trust.
So for the first time, the full collection goes on show to the public at Aberdeen Central Library on 17 August at the start of a short national tour, travelling via the Wigtown book festival in September, and ending back at the Scottish Poetry Library in November, to coincide with Book Week Scotland.
Of course the community that has seen these sculptures online is larger than any we can show them to, but seeing them in all their fascinating paper detail is a different experience. It's paradoxical: these books are cut up in celebration of books and reading.
Snip goes the artist, scissoring her way through the Ian Rankin mysteries she loves (there are three of those), hollowing out Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and glueing together bits of James Hogg's classic Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner; that book came with this caption:
To @EdinCityofLit - a gift LOST (albeit in a good book)
This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas
'No infant has the power of deciding
by what circumstances (they) shall be surrounded'
~ Robert Owen
The sculpture for the National Library of Scotland, based on Rankin's Exit Music, calls attention to the threat to libraries - are they on their way out? Across the road, at Central Library, the sculptor uses Edwin Morgan's verse on his seventh decade: 'When I go in I want it bright...'
At seventy I thought I had come through,
like parting a bead curtain in Port Said,
to something that was shadowy before,
figures and voices of late times that might
be surprising yet. The beads clash faintly
behind me as I go forward. No candle-light
please, keep that for Europe. Switch the whole thing
right on. When I go in I want it bright,
I want to catch whatever is there
in full sight.
Every institution she spotlights because she knows about the constant defence work they have to undertake, while her book sculptures pay tribute to the magic they do, providing public access to public treasures.
I say 'she' because we know she's a woman, we just don't know her. I've been putting together the text for the book Gifted which Polygon will be publishing to accompany the exhibition, and I've been in touch with her, but through an anonymous email address: we're both content with that.
In the book, she writes that at the heart of the project is
a woman, who had been a girl, whose life would have been less rich had she been unable to wander freely into libraries, art galleries and museums. A woman who, now all grown, still wants access to these places and yes, wants them for her children...
People have of course responded to the beauty and humour and sheer inventiveness of the sculptures. At the SPL, we've particularly loved the way poetry is integral to the work, as is our hashtag on Twitter, ByLeavesWeLive. At the City of Literature they've been thrilled by the Edinburgh inspiration for the whole series - because this is a city of literature, and with the world's biggest book festival about to begin (they have a lovely sculpture but it will be on tour, not on show, this summer), we are ready for a book binge.
But the mystery and anonymity of the series has been a very powerful ingredient of its attraction. I feel quite strongly we must respect her anonymity, and not blow her cover; that's part of the joy of it really. All nine of the institutions who received a gift can put their hands on their hearts and say they believe in what the artist is supporting: books, libraries, words, ideas. Most of all, though, it calls us to a generosity that answers the generosity of the artist.
The founder of the Forward prizes for poetry explains why an appropriate poem can be more helpful than therapy
Winning Words is a project intended to highlight poetry during the 2012 Olympics; it's also an anthology – Winning Words: Inspiring Poems for Everyday Life – designed to exhilarate. Here, editor William Sieghart, founder of National Poetry Day and the Forward prizes for poetry, explains why poetry is better than therapy.
How did you come to compile Winning Words?
I have always found poetry to be a magnificent companion through the most difficult moments of life. My project Winning Words has installed inspirational poems at many of the Olympic venues; for the book, I have selected 160 or so poems, from the ancient to the modern, that I believe can inspire and help the reader through the tribulations of daily existence, by providing a sense of complicity and understanding. Recently I was able to test this out when I ran a Poetry Prescriptions tent at the Port Eliot festival. To my surprise I found a lengthy queue of people seeking my help – and, best of all, a dramatic response when I managed to prescribe effectively.
In our increasingly alienated modern lives, an appropriate poem can be more helpful than many forms of therapy. We love our poetry but are often intimidated by it. Yet we consume more greetings cards than any other nation, enjoy our chants on the football terraces and have contributed significantly to the canon of rap music. Poetry is all around us, and as our great cultural legacy to the world it deserves to feature in the Olympic park and celebrations. That's what Winning Words is all about: the joy of inspiration and of shared understanding.
What was most difficult about it?
Ordering the anthology. Typically these things are done by date, but this was different. I wanted the book to ebb and flow. I had to mix things together, much like a DJ, to get the right feeling.
What did you most enjoy?
I enjoyed every moment of it. Spending time reading, discussing and selecting my favourite poems – what could be more fabulous than that?
How long did it take?
About a year.
What has changed for you since it was first published?
The sense that there are poems that I forgot to include, which leads me to thoughts of a sequel.
Who's your favourite writer?
If pressed, I confess to a soft spot for Philip Larkin.
What are your other inspirations?
I spend a lot of my life working in the field of conflict mediation in some of the worlds most intractable conflict zones. I'm inspired by those who never give up searching for a solution.
Give us a writing tip.
If at first you don't succeed, try and try and try again.
What are you working on now?
Trying to persuade the publisher to do a hardback version for Christmas!
Graffiti in the wild places, say objectors. But others are in favour of Simon Armitage's work with Ilkley Literature Festival on the Yorkshire Pennines
It might be Yorkshire Day all over the world, but for many climbers and outdoor folk, a Cultural Olympiad-sponsored poetry and scupture trail on the West Yorkshire uplands spells 'trouble at mill'. The Stanza Stones project is a collaboration between renowned local poet Simon Armitage, artist Pip Hall and the Ilkley Literature festival.
The Trail itself features six new poems by Simon Armitage which have been carved into rock by Pip Hall in what have been descriibed as 'six atmospheric locations'. The problem is, that for many rock climbers the moody gritstone edges represent an almost sacred altar of movement. The rough, skin grazing, dark-textured stone is often described by the gritstone cognoscenti as 'God's own rock'. These small scattered outcrops,escarpments and boulders offer a climbing experience unlike any other.
In contrast to the techniques required on the rhyolite,limestone,granite and dolorite cliffs in other popular climbing venues, gritsone requires an almost unique climbing style based on balance, friction and an ability to utilise the rounded cracks through a climbing technique known as 'jamming'. It is an occasionally brutal style of climbing where quite often, upward momentum requires the climbers' to suspend his/her body weight on jammed fist. For the uninitiated, this often involves leaving some skin behind in the crack.
Writing about the stanza trail on the leading climbing and hillwalking website UKClimbing.com, outdoors writer Dan Bailey has unleashed some dark mutterings from the gritstone rock climbing fundementalists. The first respondent on the story's thread comments:
Frankly, I don't give a shit if it's pretty poetry, I'd much rather our limited wild spaces remained untouched as long as possible. I find this depressing.
I was outraged to hear hammer and chissel (sic) whilst soloing one quiet afternoon. The fact that the chissel was being used for what is clamed to be an artistic project changes nothing in my mind. This is now a permanent feature on the rock, in a rock type that most of us do our utmost to minimise our impact upon.
Climbing artist and illustrator, Phil Gibson, is also surprisingly dismissive of the project offering,
What a pity that Mr Armitage has chosen to carve his scroll across the rocks that he perpetrates to covet. Not only does it smack at egotism, but it is also pretentious: gold-emblazoned. His work should have been left in print, and for the sake of the literary festival, transported to these places in a more transient manner. Oh please, we already have Mr Gormley, Mr Hirst and Banksy. Please don't encourage him.
However, it has to be added that many members of the climbing community supported the project and chided those critics for alleged selfishness and naivety. Others made the point that rock climbers do not own the crags and indeed, that their own activities could sometimes be seen as far more visually intrusive and ecologically destructive.
The full Stanza trail is now open and is advertised as suitable for short family walks taking in one or two stones, to full day outings which are best suited to experienced walkers who can take in all six stanza stones.
John Appleby is a Liverpool-born artist, outdoor writer, mountaineer and guidebook contributor who has lived most of his adult life amongst the North Wales mountains. Articles on art, rock climbing and conservation appearing more recently on the Footless Crow blogazine which also features many of the UK's leading outdoor writers.
Canadian-based social reading site, Wattpad, invites entries for its competition, designed as an opportunity 'for poets to share their work and for audiences to discover the genre'
The Attys, launched by social reading site Wattpad, are specifically for digital poetry, and are taking entries from both amateurs and the more experienced. "Poems can be submitted from anywhere, and we anticipate that some entries will be written on mobile devices," said Allen Lau, co-founder of Wattpad, which is produced in Toronto, Canada. "We want to create a digital-first opportunity for poets to share their work and for audiences to discover the genre [and we] are excited to see how the world connects over poetry."
Atwood, who joined Wattpad's community of nine million writers and readers in June, will be judging the prize, for which competitors must enter 10 poems as a collection, each demonstrating a different poetic form. Prizes will range from $1,000 (£640) to feedback sessions from the Booker-winning author.
"I'm very honoured to have it named after me. Poetry is at the core of each language, and language itself is at the core of our humanity," said Atwood. "I hope that all entrants will enjoy both composing and reading the poems of others. These are very ancient pleasures; by sharing in them, we share in our own deep history."
The author has been sharing her own poetry with readers on Wattpad, with three new poems now posted online: Update on Werewolves, Thriller Suite and the most recent Ghost Cat, in which she writes: "Cats suffer from dementia too. Did you know that?/Ours did. Not the black one, smart enough/To be neurotic and evade the vet./ The other one, the furrier's muff, the piece of fluff."
"I might be a ghost cat because somehow I relate to this completely," complimented one reader.
Continuing our series of exclusive artworks celebrating the Games, Michael Rosen expresses his unease about our Olympic obsession with gold medals in his own inimitable way
Continuing our series of artworks celebrating the Games, the poet and former children's laureate expresses his unease about our obsession with gold medals in his own inimitable way
Michael Rosen says of his poem:
I love sport but become uneasy when it is overly shackled to nation, corporate grabbing and only-first-will-do-ism. All three and I'm nearly out of here. Imagine there's no countries, it's easy if you try ...
Michael Rosen's Olympic poem
I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis
Day 1 day 2 day 3 day 4
you was down I was on the floor
feeling such a failure
would I finish below Australia?
Then from the heavens came day 5
I discovered the reasons I am alive
better than when I met Christopher Biggins
Glover, Stanning and Bradley Wiggins.
I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis
Look at me doctor can't you see
I'm loving the brand Team GB
I'm seeing the shape of the Big Society,
but me I've got gold medal anxiety.
The lightweight four had me worrying
I've got the feeling they just weren't hurrying
settling for silver's not good enough
Brand GB is made of finer stuff.
I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis
Then before I came to grief
came the moment of pure relief
as the afternoon began to unfold
I ... won ... double gold.
And yet I had cause to fret
there were silvers for me to regret
I gave the medal table a glance:
Horrors! ... Above Brand GB ... France!
I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis.
Blake Morrison is charmed by the self-consciousness of the poet and socialite
Critics were hard on Stephen Spender, but not as hard as he was on himself. He felt a failure, a man famous only for having famous friends. Each time he published something new, it was like throwing himself to the wolves. "People I meet sometimes say 'I've read your books.' Secretly, I do not believe that anyone has read anything (apart from a few anthologised poems)." Even achievements he might have been proud of brought him little satisfaction: "My lecture an enormous success (by this I do not mean it was a good lecture)." Accompanying everything there was a voice that said "You are wrong."
In a long career, he took up many noble causes – for peace, democracy, freedom of expression, intellectual exchange. But despite, or because of, his missionary goodwill, he tended to be seen as a duffer – shy, awkward, naive. "You will always be a poet because you will always be humiliated," Auden said soon after they met, and humiliation came naturally to him. The scandal over the CIA funding of the magazine he co-edited, Encounter, was his most public humiliation. His journals also include more comical examples, such as his account of walking down a street in Covent Garden and unwittingly, noisily farting, to the delight of some nearby boys and girls. He's more amused than embarrassed by this, until a "self-important" thought strikes him: what if they'd realised it was Stephen Spender farting? What would they think then?
Such agonised self-consciousness is an endearing feature of these journals, spanning more than 50 years and including personal material that hasn't appeared before. This isn't to say that they're confessional: on the contrary, when asked whether he was totally candid in his journals, Spender replied that he "did not feel impelled to be – or rather, I felt impelled not to be". Short on bitchiness, and with half an eye on publication, he's too nice to be a great diarist. But he's unfailingly curious and liberal-minded – and so down on himself that you can't help but take his side.
A close friend once put it to him that the reason he'd lost his way as a poet was that "you haven't been able to deal with the problem of your homosexuality in your writing." The friend, Reynolds Price, was also a lover, though you would never know that from the journals, which rather proves the point. Spender defends himself on the grounds that writing about his homosexuality would have resulted in sentimentality and "a lack of contact with the ordinary life of family marriage". More to the point, he wanted to spare his wife Natasha, whose sensitivity about his public image was greater than his own.
Were Natasha alive (she died two years ago), she would certainly have censored the most intimate passage in this book, which describes Spender's relationship with an American biology student almost 50 years his junior, Bryan Obst. Nothing explicit is recorded, in the manner of Edmund White or Alan Hollinghurst (neither of whom Spender seems to have read). But the pleasure he takes in his young lover is palpable. And there is one tempestuous scene, when Natasha overhears or intuits a furtive phone call he's making to Obst from the next room and he comes through to find her crying. The relationship continued, over odd snatched weeks, till Obst's death from Aids. But Spender denied or underplayed it, as he did his affairs – past and present – with other young men.
Natasha's preoccupation with her (and his) reputation is a recurrent theme in the journals, notably when a biography appears alleging that she had an affair with Raymond Chandler – distressed and indignant, she takes to her bed. Spender's response is sweetly supportive: even if true, it's irrelevant, he tells her; whatever she did for Chandler was done from compassion. A "bad conscience" about his own affairs made it easier for him to be understanding, perhaps. But his concern for her was genuine. He couldn't imagine life without her. The marriage wasn't just a front.
His absorption in "family marriage" is also evident in the many entries here about his two children, Matthew and Lizzie. He and Matthew regularly go off on "honeymoons" – bonding trips abroad – and he's equally close to Lizzie: they watch Some Like It Hot together on TV, which "really cheered us up after a dreary day". Even when the children have grown up and are doing well, he still worries about them: "One doesn't have reserves of philosophical – or cynical – indifference to one's children. Their unhappiness seems unbearable. It is worse than one's own unhappiness."
If Spender the devoted father comes as a surprise, Spender the dinner guest and lunch host is more familiar – but mightily impressive nonetheless. Can any other 20th-century writer claim to have hobnobbed with all of the following: Igor Stravinsky, Charlie Chaplin, Princess Margaret, Truman Capote, Ted Heath, Yehudi Menuhin, Guy Burgess, Sarah Ferguson, Hugh Gaitskell, Michel Foucault, Jackie Onassis, Margaret Thatcher, Susan Sontag, Beth Chatto, Vivien Leigh, Francis Bacon, Tony Benn? It's typical that while visiting the Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Spender is spotted among the tourists by Peggy Guggenheim and invited to cocktails. When he analyses the work of the artists and musicians he knew, he's not insightful or deep. But they're charmed by him and he by them. Whatever his other talents, Spender was good at making (and keeping) friends.
The endless lunches and lecture tours took their toll on his poetry, which came slowly or not at all. The journals were a fallback – a record of interesting times and interesting people that would guarantee him a place in posterity – but, as Spender was the first to admit, they were no substitute for the masterpiece he'd hoped to write before he died: "Under it all, there is the feeling I have never done my best." The later journal entries, some written during spells in hospital, are much possessed by death, without being terrified of it: with so many friends having predeceased him, he feels more at home among the dead than the living. His chief worry is how his death will inconvenience those left behind.
Among those who died before Spender was Auden, the dominant presence in the journals and a constant point of comparison. Spender envied his poetic gift but noted that Auden likewise envied him, first for having a large penis ("He was certainly affected by this and mentioned it on many occasions") and second for being a father. He admired Auden's devotion to work but was also pulled in the opposite direction, towards sociability, hedonism, "travelling first-class, giving people delicious meals, etc". When the choice came – perfection of the life or the art? – he went for life. And on balance, for all his doubts and sense of failure, and despite the voice telling him "You are wrong", he believed he'd chosen right.
Ruth Padel on a vision of a world ruled by twin demons: austerity and information overload
In 2002, introducing a book of poems by 52 living poets, I said most British poets didn't work in universities but earned their living in other ways such as teaching, journalism, publishing or arts administration. In 2007, introducing 60 more poems in a follow-up book, I found myself ending each poet's biography with the university where they taught creative writing. It was that fast – creative writing embedded itself across British universities within five years.
The turnaround coincided with the rise of the internet. For young poets, this combination meant new routes to publishing, new ways that your writing might fit into your life, and some very intense group reading, especially of the previous generation of poets. What it meant for poetry was that young poets focusing on workshop and craft also rethought fundamentals like persona and voice. Now we are getting the results.
In 2002, Sam Riviere was 21. He wrote poems at art school, then did an MA (and is now doing a PhD) in creative writing. He's made YouTube videos of his work, and the poems in his debut collection are self-referentially literary, political and confessional, very funny, almost punctuation-free – and began as a blog. When the coalition government announced austerity measures, Riviere began a series of "poetry posts" on writing poems in the age of cuts.
The blog acquired a cult following, and this is its book. "Cuts" apply to almost everything in it, including the feeling, form and content of poetry itself. (Not the book's length, though. Eighty-one is a lot of poems.) This is a vision of a world ruled by twin demons, Austerity and Information Overload. We resolve that paradox, Riviere suggests, by cuts. "This is me eating not 1 not 2 but 3 pancakes / this is me having Breakfast in America in paris / with my creepy associates / this is me punching a photographer / this is me listening to my ansaphone messages / these are my new converse all****s / this is me logging into my email / I think my password 40 times a day / here I am inside the reptile house".
As in a film, attention cuts constantly to new things while the line spools on seamlessly. "Whatever you can think of / someone's already done it. / There's a new kind of content / pre-empting individual perversions / I've seen my missing girlfriend's face / emerge cresting from a wave of pixels," says a poem called "POV" (as in "point of view") about watching late-night porn.
A poem called "Cuts" is a tribute to the American modernism that is, I suspect, Riviere's heaviest influence. Here it is, uncut:
I can see that things have gotten pretty bad
our way of life threatened by financiers
assortments of phoneys and opportunists
and very soon the things we cherish most
will likely be taken from us the wine
from our cellars our silk gowns and opium
but tell me what do you expect Chung Ling Soo
much ridiculed conjurer of the court and last
of the dynasts of brooms to do about it?
Nine (as in muses) is the book's magic number, and this key poem has nine lines. The language of the first three marks Riviere's debt to America; of the second three, Ezra Pound makes his presence felt in "silk" and "opium"; the last triplet, with its fake Orientalism (Chung Ling Soo was the stage name of an American magician) and buttonholing apostrophe ("tell me"), openly echoes "The Cantos", reminding us of Pound's whole cut and paste of politics, chinoiserie, cultural allusiveness, high lyric and crooked finance.
The backdrop to all relationships in 81 Austerities, including linguistic, is social networking. Whether on blogs or Facebook, in tweets or poems, what matters in confessionalism is not the dirty or trivial detail itself but the writing of it. These poems are both body and screen, the site of endless re-pinging between self and other ("did she know she'd have that effect / 'accidentally' hitting videocall somehow / so when I answered I was looking up / into her face from inside her handbag"), and their underlying subject is editing the way others see us. Creative writing means creative cutting. Edits to a poem mirror the ways we cut and paste ourselves.
"His subject is the nature of contemporary reality shifting away from you," Seamus Heaney once said of another American modernist, John Ashbery. Following the steps of Paul Muldoon (often alluded to, sometimes by name) – and also drawing, I'd like to think, on the manic confidentiality of Paul Durcan – Riviere has found his own new take on that shiftiness. Some will love it, others may call it superficial and repetitive, or say he's using social networking to push his poetry. I think it's the real thing. He has a powerful lyric gift, the vowels, rhythms and cadences precise as brushed steel; the insights, and how the words behave together, are convincing and surprising; the poems are both intimate and universal and have a lovely energy.
If you want to know what new things poetry can do, you'll find this an exhilaratingly authentic way to confront the inauthentic, both in ourselves and in society. On the surface, Riviere's poems are about promoting poetry in a Twitter-stuccoed landscape where "each thing finds its hollow place". But the poems also, elegantly and honestly, do what poetry does best: try to make sense of their world.
• Ruth Padel's The Mara Crossing: Poems and Prose on Migration is published by Chatto & Windus.
Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust and Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy
Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, read by Becca Battoe (19hrs unabridged, Random House, £19.99)
It's probably safe to assume that everyone, even the Dalai Lama, knows what the world's fastest-selling book – 33m copies in 19 weeks – is about, so let's concentrate on the advantages of getting it on audio. Crypto-BDSM (bondage discipline sadism masochism) devotees will, I suspect, prefer to do it themselves without the intrusion of a reader. More so if they're blokes doing it to blokes, because the narrator is Anastasia Steele, a beautiful, susceptible, spankable 22-year-old American college student. Just in case you've been researching dwindling penguin numbers in Antarctica all year, I'd better explain that the Grey in the title refers to young, impossibly handsome, mega-rich Christian Grey, whose inner demons (with which he is constantly wrestling but we haven't time to go into that now) can only be appeased by practising BDS on good-looking masochistic girls. Ana is ideal because she works part-time in a hardware shop to pay her tuition fees, so he can pick up most of the necessary gear – rope, straps, handcuffs, whips – on their first date. It should be erotic but Christian is so damned polite: "Now Ana, if you could please just put on this airline eye mask and then place your left foot through this cuff attached to the iron ring behind your right ear …" It sounds more like flat-pack assembly instructions until "Holy shit!" shrieks Ana, writhing in ecstasy. "Holy fuck! I detonate around him again and again, round and round, as my orgasm rips me apart, scorching through me like a wildfire consuming everything, my body pulsating and shaking …" As will yours, I guarantee, listening to Ms Battoe's bottomless coffer of stifled gasps, ullulating, moans, strangled shrieks, panting sobs, and so on. Pasta needs sauce, and boring, bog-standard BDSM definitely needs a ton of audible ketchup to make it go down.
Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust, read by Neville Jason (26hrs unabridged, Naxos, £65)
The fourth of Proust's seven-volume epic Remembrance of Things Past also focuses on sensual pleasure, chiefly homosexual, which, though rife and largely accepted in the author's aristocratic social circle, was forbidden. The surprise is that in 1921 he could write so openly about rent boys, male brothels and climbing up a ladder to spy on the violent coupling of Baron de Charlus and a tailor he has just picked up in the street. Talking of readers, couldn't someone have told Neville Jason that camp Kenneth Williams impersonations don't sit easily on Parisian demi-mondeurs. My remembrance of reading Proust, admittedly a long time ago, is hazy and inextricably mixed up with Alain de Botton's 1997 book How Proust Can Change Your Life, but, as with The Archers, it doesn't seem to matter. The Guermantes, Verdurins, Swann, Saint-Loup, Albertine, Cottard, Gilberte – they're all still around being variously snooty, predatory, bitchy, boring, unfaithful and as real as they were three books ago. But despite that and the feasting with panthers leitmotif, unless Proust has indeed changed your life, it's a long haul.
Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy, read by Juliet Stevenson (1hr unabridged, Macmillan, £13)
Enough of sex. This 2005 audio is still the best collection of contemporary love poems I've heard. Juliet Stevenson reading Duffy is as good as – no, better than – Alex Jennings reading Shakespeare's sonnets. Rapture's 51 poems chart the progress of a single passionate love affair, from its delirious beginning – "Falling in love is glamorous hell / The crouched parched heart like a tiger ready to kill / A flame's fierce licks under the skin" – to its desolate end: "All day slow funerals have ploughed the rain / We've done again that trick we have of turning love to pain". Give it to someone or, better still, keep it and burn, brood, weep.
By John Fowles
Within ten seconds
I knew I wanted to kiss your eyelids.
This is why I kept staring
Past you, as if to a cold horizon.
You were not boring me, as you thought.
I was looking to where you stood
Smelling of rain, with naked breasts.
Naked, defenceless, needing defence.
It was not as you thought,
You were piqued and moved away.
I was the one who by silence,
Staring, no move, moved away.
Where pine trees touch water.
Men who tie themselves to masts.
Sirens with delicate eyelids.
Penelope is white with lust.
Molpe, the deck has tears
And the rock has tears.
Even the sun has molten tears.
Meeting, never to meet again.
• From Selected Poems by John Fowles, edited by Adam Thorpe (Flambard Press, £12). To order a copy for £9.60 with free UK p&p go to the Guardian bookshop
Whitman's variety of lineation gives this poem, in which he draws on his own experiences as a field hospital nurse, its originality
With Walt Whitman, born in 1819, American poetry is usually thought to throw off its English ancestry. This may be an over-simplification, given the distinctive qualities of such writers as Longfellow (b 1807), Poe (1809) and the underrated Herman Melville, the latter also born in 1819 – all poets of undoubted originality. But Whitman looks and sounds different. He seems to stride across the traditional rhythm of the line and shape of the stanza, breaking new ground, marching into a bigger, free-er poetic world. He is a poet who carries an advertising hoarding, a man singing himself, yet singing humanity.
This week's poem, Vigil Strange I Kept in the Field One Night is from his 1864 volume, Drum-Taps. Published almost a decade after the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), it reflects the intense maturation process he underwent during the American civil war, and demonstrates how technically radical Whitman is, or seems to be. His punctuation is often weird. His lines seem to rush headlong till stopped, usually by a semi-colon. His word order may be quaint with Latinate inversions ("Long there and then in vigil I stood") and sometimes ungrammatical; his lines expand and contract like tides. And yet at the same time Whitman's verse feels familiar in its strangeness, His rhetorical devices – epanalepsis, anaphora ("Found you in death so cold, dear comrade – found your body …") and the like – are familiar from psalms and scripture. In fact, his modernity seems to consist in his instinct for bringing this ancient music into the poetic text, and using its repetitiveness to heighten the emotional power of his contemporary, yet often archetypal, subject matter.
Whitman's poetry is not un-scannable, though scanning it won't help us enjoy it. Accented lines can always be scanned, if it's a matter of mapping the stressed and unstressed syllables, and we can hang tidy Greek labels on some of them – labels which rarely have perfect descriptive accuracy, any way. The opening line is trochaic pentameter. The next is a hexameter, and the two after that, heptameters. This is a characteristic pattern, the accumulation of stresses line by line. It's the variety of his lineation rather than the destruction of metre which makes Whitman original. It gives his poetry an organic structure, enhancing our sense that, probably like the man himself, it's a natural force.
Here, among the many repetitions, the most audible is the constant chiming of the word "vigil," always connected to an adjective or adjectival clause: "vigil strange", "vigil wondrous and vigil sweet", "vigil of silence", "vigil final for you, brave boy", etc. Here, too, he uses accumulation, so that the final references to "vigil" are the fullest and most complex. They tell us some of the most important facts in the poem (we've heard them before, but now they are most deeply, memorably etched): "Vigil for boy of responding kisses", "Vigil for comrade swiftly slain".
In this and other poems in Drum-Taps, Whitman is drawing on his own experiences as a field hospital nurse (experiences unforgettably set out in his poem The Wound-Dresser) and transferring them to the battle-field. Although not a soldier, he knew the grim realities of war first-hand, and how to make poems from them. But this poem is also a romance. It elevates the grim realities. Death is transformed by a loving and solemn ritual into a near-religious experience.
No one else is present on this battlefield. The speaker sits alone with his dead comrade "in the fragrant silent night". The scene is eroticised and idealised. And, if the poem had ended earlier than it does, around line 15, perhaps, we'd have been forgiven for thinking it, despite the freewheeling style, a shade Keatsian in sentiment. Whitman's genius, here, is to keep going. I think this is often true of his work. The onward impulse isn't merely rhythmical, isn't merely a matter of open road or open heart. He pushes on when the subject matter itself is resistant.
The poem attains its stature with the wrapping and burial of the soldier's body. The wrapping is the main focus, repetitiously but precisely described: "My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, enveloped well his form, / Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet…" The lack of possessive pronoun or article here ("over head", "under feet") emphasises the necessary, romance-rejecting detachment. Death presents not only a sacred mystery, but a practical challenge. The three repetitions of "well" evoke the good nurse conscientiously at work.
The speaker returns to the present, now looking back on the "vigil of night and battlefield dim" and then, shifting further ahead in time, reviewing the tableau of the dawn burial. Nothing prepares us for the terseness of the last line, and yet how right it is. The possessive pronoun of "my soldier", embodies the tender valediction, the last moment of emotion. No more needs to be felt or said. "It is finished."
Vigil Strange I Kept in the Field One Night
Vigil strange I kept on the field one night,
When you, my son and my comrade, dropt at my side that day,
One look I but gave, which your dear eyes return'd,
with a look I shall never forget;
One touch of your hand to mine, O boy,
reach'd up as you lay on the ground;
Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle;
Till late in the night reliev'd, to the place at last again I made my way;
Found you in death so cold, dear comrade – found your body, son of responding kisses (never again on earth responding;)
Bared your face in the starlight – curious the scene – cool blew the moderate night wind;
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading;
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet, there in the fragrant silent night;
But not a tear fell, nor even a long-drawn sigh – Long, long I gazed;
Then on the earth partially reclining, sat by your side, leaning my chin in my hands;
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you, dearest comrade – Not a tear, not a word;
Vigil of silence, love and death – vigil for you, my son and my soldier,
As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole;
Vigil final for you, brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death,
I faithfully loved you and cared for you living – I think we shall surely meet again;)
Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appear'd,
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop'd well his form,
Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head, and carefully under feet;
And there and then, and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited;
Ending my vigil strange with that – vigil of night and battle-field dim;
Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding;)
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain – vigil I never forget, how as day brighten'd,
I rose from the chill ground, and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.
Scottish poet Jackie Kay reads out three short poems she wrote after being inspired by Team GB's recent performances in the javelin, triathlon and cycling. She follows the highs and lows of Goldie Sayers, the Brownlee brothers and Victoria Pendleton
Scottish poet Jackie Kay draws inspiration from Team GB's highs and lows in the triathlon, javelin and cycling to create three short poems that capture the spirit of the Games
Jackie Kay writes:
I was inspired by the triathlon today and the Brownlee brothers to try and write a triathlon myself. So I've written three short poems on three different sporting events today: the javelin, the triathlon itself and two events in the velodrome. I was struck by the idea that sharing somebody's disappointment is as intense and intimate as sharing their success. I used to be a long-distance runner, a Scottish school girl champion, until I broke my leg and didn't walk properly for a year and a half. So I was thinking about that too when I wrote the poem. How quickly we move into our unfit futures!
Point of View
i Goldie and the Three No Throws
I remember the fancy footwork of the discus or javelin,
That feeling as a spear left your body, as if it'd come from within
To be thrown into the future: the armchair of a middle-aged woman, watching the Olympics, twenty-four seven, shouting instructions!
(The only thing worse than an armchair politician is an armchair athlete, who no longer gets athlete's feet; or has to nurse her Achilles heel.)
Now, the woman from the Czech Republic, takes the chalk circle
An ancient Amazonian, her spear spikes the flaky air.
Then, out comes Goldie and the great bear of the crowd's roar.
But Goldie loses the qualification and her despair
Is as ancient as it is modern: hindsight is a golden thing –
Goldie Sayers' words are wise – and the crowd adores.
Belief puts itself on the line; hope is not far behind.
My tears for her bravery, the biggest surprise.
ii The Brownlee Brothers
When the race begins, the swimmers together
Seem shaped like a great bird in the river,
The green-capped feathers all of a quiver.
The big bird cracks open; and from the bird's-eye view
Single swimmers emerge, brothers first – phew!
Alistair and Jonny Brownlee – sibling stars,
Shedding their wet suits first (the fourth element
Some say, of this transition) and mount the bikes fast.
The road to ambition is a road to perdition.
All transitions come with great risks.
The river, red tarmac and the Serpentine Road
Where one brother will get crowned with a gold
And the other brother a bronze, but hey
It is not the swimming, cycling, running
That is the biggest feat; it's the 15-second penalty
Possibility of defeat – that's the real deal.
Sport's biggest test is a character test
And sport reveals true pluck and nature
As the bird in the river unfurled the swimmers.
iii Farewell Victoria Pendleton
It was a day of drama in the Velodrome
As you watched agog, OMG,
As Trott took the Omnium
Against the odds of a collapsed lung
Coming home, coming home.
Not one but two golds to her name.
You saw the photo of not so long ago
With young Laura and her Bradley hero.
Not long later, you watched Victoria
Who rode as close to her rival
As a synchronised swimmer
And all the drama was in the lane error
Where the line was crossed in the Velodrome
As close as step to pets; palindromes,
The Mearest of lines, the closing line.
So, farewell Victoria dearest, you say.
You salute her. She runs her last lap, and bows.
The last time I'm going to go through that, she says.
And even her brave coach is in bits.
We knew it would end in tears, the TV says.
And they roll down your cheeks too – you armchair, you.
The greatest ever theatre – sport's soap opera.
Victoria. Oh Victoria. Collect your silver!
Your ordeal is over: take your seat on throne.
A new book that claims walking and writing are one activity uses great dreamers to make its point, but the walker-writers passing through Connemara seem to have drawn on simpler inspirations
Beside the pier at Rosroe, at the end of the road, by the mouth of Killary Harbour, on the fringe of Connemara, there's a quite ordinary looking house. The last time I saw it there was a sign on the door saying it was no longer a youth hostel, a function it had served admirably well when I first saw it 40 years ago this summer having walked the breadth of Connemara to get there. Before becoming a hostel, the house was home to the poet Richard Murphy, and before that again, to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who ended up staying there, as he said himself, because he "could only think clearly in the dark" and in Rosroe had "found the last pool of darkness in Europe". The nearby replacement hostel will serve as the starting point for the forthcoming 16th annual Connemara marathon walk, which will cover much the same route as I took all those years ago.
I've been thinking about that house a lot over the last while, thanks to a serendipitous conjunction of events. The first of these was the completion of the latest round of work on a collaboration with the composer David Bremner for this year's Béal festival, in Dublin, a choral work called Loop Walks, sections of which are intended to evoke more recent strolls in Connemara. The second was reading Murphy's 2002 memoir, The Kick, and the third was the arrival in the post of a copy of Merlin Coverley's The Art of Wandering, within days of finishing the first two. Appropriately enough, having been addressed not to the house where I now live but to one where I lived 10 years ago, the book found its way to me courtesy of that professional wanderer, our local postman.
Coverley's interesting thesis is, essentially, that walking and writing are one activity. To illustrate this, after a short discussion of pilgrim writers, he looks at a diverse range of walker-writers stretching from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to his fellow modern-day psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, via John Clare, William Blake, the English and American romantic poets, Parisian flâneurs, Rudolf Hess and the situationist international to support it. His walker/writers are what might be called romantic individualists. For a Rousseau or a William Wordsworth, the act of walking through the world was not primarily about the world itself; they were much more concerned with walking into their inner worlds. From the day Rousseau turned his back on his native city, these peripatetic writer-thinkers were bent on walking into a kind of alienated individuality. Coverley's walkers are professional outsiders; visionaries and dreamers on the road.
Connemara, on the other hand, seems to have produced wandering writers of a different ilk. Wittgenstein, who was known to stop mid-walk on the paths around Killary to draw his symbols in the mud with his walking stick, was on a long walk away from the abstract inhumanity of the Tractatus and towards the logic of everyday speech that characterises his posthumous Philosophical Investigations.
Murphy's walks around Rosroe, and his longer term home in Cleggan, were more likely to involve visits to the shops or his neighbours than any mystical end. As Cleggan is a port, and as not even poets have mastered the art of walking on water, he did the next best thing and sailed. In fact, he did more than anyone else to rescue the traditional Galway hooker, and used his boats to draw visitors and their money to an economically deprived area; his wanderings were integrative, concerned with community, and practical.
In their concern for the ordinary and for the community through which they moved, philosopher and poet were following in the footsteps of an earlier English-language writer who wandered around the area with good purpose. In the summer of 1905, JM Synge travelled through Connemara in the company of the artist Jack Yeats, by carriage, on foot and by hooker. They were there on a commission from the Manchester Guardian that resulted in a series of 12 articles for the paper and a 1911 book with illustrations by Yeats. But Synge and Yeats were not in pursuit of the picturesque to entertain the Guardian readership. Synge was wandering the west to portray the depths of poverty that was helping to destroy the community, and the paper used his descriptions as part of a fundraising campaign aimed at alleviating it. A pattern of wandering through Connemara as an integrative act, aimed at looking clearly at this small communal world as it is, was established.
Synge's true heir is, unquestionably, Tim Robinson, cartographer and peripatetic chronicler of Connemara and its offshore outpost, the Aran Islands. At the beginning of his five-volume journey through these landscapes, Robinson states as the fundamental unit of his rhythm the concept of the "good step", a more gentle placing of the foot on an actual place, sensitive to all the ecologies, both human and natural, temporal and spatial, that the act of walking integrates us into. Synge, Murphy and Wittgenstein (the second volume of the Connemara trilogy is called Last Pool of Darkness) are all present in Robinson's periplum, along with a number of other writers, both in English and Irish, associated with the area; language being one of the ecologies he is concerned to recover. I'd imagine that most of the participants in the walk will have learned much of what they know about the route from Robinson's books and many will be carrying his map for handy reference.
Perhaps it is the boggy, stony, watery unpredictable nature of its ground that makes Connemara more suitable for wandering writers with sharp sight than those in search of a vision, or maybe it's the small compass that circumscribes the activities of its walkers. Whatever the reason, it seems to me that they are different, complementary to, the more shamanic figures that people Coverley's pages. One group of wandering writers walks to discover a higher end, the other to attend to the path; as readers, as humans, it seems to me we are fortunate to possess both kinds.
The last month of summer has inspired topics from nature and executions to flying nuns – what can you come up with?
August, the eight month, is the second to be named after a Roman emperor, this time Augustus. He is said to have chosen this month for his own because he'd had a number of military victories in Sextus, or the sixth month, as it had previously been called before the addition of January and February. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, August is the last month of summer, with just a hint of autumn in the air. However, as some posters reminded me in July, things are different south of the equator, where this month is much like our February.
In The Shepheardes Calender, Spenser's August takes the form of a poetic competition between two shepherds, Willye and Perigot, who take turns improvising alternate lines of a song, a roundelay on the theme of love unrequited, with a cowherd's boy, Cuddie, to judge who is the winner between them. This kind of competition was quite common in oral poetry, and lives on to today in the Basque tradition of the bertsolari. Cuddie calls it a draw and then rounds things off by singing a song on the same theme by Spenser's alter-ego, Colin Clout.
Matthew Arnold places the opening of his poem The Scholar-Gipsy in a distinctly Spenserian bucolic setting of shepherds and reapers, with the narrator taking shelter from "the August sun" under a tree beside which he can see the sheep grazing the recently harvested fields. However, the poem is a very 19th-century meditation on the differences between the civilised and natural man, and on the fear that prevents us from adopting a more natural approach to living. The speaker in the poem clearly envies the wandering scholar his freedom, but he realises that he could never follow the example of abandoning the soft life of academia.
Robert Burns's Song – Composed in August is equally filled with the charms of the rural, but in this case there is no tinge of sadness or regret. The Scottish summer landscape is teeming with life and forms the perfect backdrop to the poet's declaration of love for his darling Peggy. Things are, as you might expect, a touch less sunny in Christina Rossetti's Amor Mundi; the lovers may start out walking "in glowing August weather", but the easy downhill path they take is pregnant with omens of hellfire and damnation. Somehow I can't but think that Rossetti would not have approved of Burns's more easygoing attitude to physical love.
Anne Sexton found herself writing a Letter on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound "at 2 o'clock on a Tuesday/ in August of 1960". She, too, was meditating on love and sadness, and found her escape in a surreal vision of a group of nuns, her fellow passengers, spreading their habits and taking to the air with a cry of "good news, good news". The contrast between Sexton's precise description of the sea and landscape seen from the ferry and the absurdist flight of the reverend sisters is the fulcrum on which the poem rests. A similar attention to the smallest detail of vision informs William Carlos Williams's Flowers of August sequence, a celebration of the most ordinary, easily overlooked weeds and wildflowers that is in keeping with the poet's affection for the everyday.
Of course, August isn't all sunshine and flowers and flying nuns; serious stuff happens even in late summer. While Climbing Milestone Mountain, 22 August, 1937, Kenneth Rexroth found himself remembering the still controversial executions, exactly 10 years earlier, of the Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. There can be no doubt where the poet's sympathies lay, and the poem cuts between the Sierras of now and the Boston of then in a way that builds inexorably to the final assertion that like the mountains, the two men's legacy would endure.
And so the challenge this month is to write poems celebrating the month of Augustus. Whether you're in the mood for a bucolic idyll or a more urban, and possibly less sun-drenched bit of late-summer surrealism, the choices are all yours. Just remember to post your August poster poems here.